When you write fiction, you hope someone’s gonna like it. You never expect it’ll win an award, let alone TWO. My short experimental fiction piece A Man of Light and Scales placed second in the Maricopa Community Colleges District Writing Competition and second in Glendale Community College’s Traveler Competition. As these are both solely print journals, I now present the story for your online reading pleasure (even if my mom still doesn’t get the ending). Warning: explicit content and general mind-f**kery.
A Man of Light and Scales
By Sara Dobie Bauer
You meet him your second day in Charleston. More so, perhaps, you meet his violin. He’s wearing a suit you imagine cost as much as a car. No tie, which allows you a peek at his long, pale throat and into the shadowy place were neck meets chest. As he speaks to you, he’s still holding his violin: a red piece of wood with scratch marks and a faded veneer. You wonder at the abuse the instrument has taken but soon think these are not marks of abuse but marks of love—of devotion.
You’re in a place called the Charleston Grill. Waiters scurry like albino beetles in white shirts and dark slacks. The restaurant smells of butter and fish but mostly butter. There’s a large framed photo of Billie Holiday on the back wall.
After the jazz quintet finishes their last set, you find out his name is Graydon Kelly and he would like to take you to dinner. At first, you think you should say no. He has that look about him: the thorn on the rose, the sugared rim of the poisoned glass. He’s over six feet tall. He has black hair, offset by light blue eyes. His cheekbones are even higher than yours, and you fleetingly think that if you reproduced with this man, your children’s faces would be pointed and sharp.
You agree to meet him the following night at a small Italian restaurant around the block called Il Cortile, translated from “Courtyard of the King,” and you laugh when you realize there is something quite kingly about Graydon Kelly.
When he shows up to your date late, you reassess. He’s in a pastel linen button-down and torn jeans. He has on boat shoes, and his curly black hair is a mess. He smells like pine. “Rosin,” he explains. Something to do with his violin.
He takes your hand and leads you to a table in the courtyard. His left hand is callused against yours. Outside, winding, wrestling fig veins grow up the exterior wall, illuminated by white twinkle lights that mimic the stars. He pulls out your chair and sighs into his seat.
He must notice you looking at him, because he smiles. “I look different when I’m not on stage.”
You acknowledge this is true.
“What’s the old adage? Fall in love with Gilda, but wake up to me?”
You fall into conversation, and it’s not the usual, polite, getting to know you babble. Graydon Kelly says odd, irresponsible things like, “You seem like you’re running from something” or “You have an amazing mouth” or the worst, “What do you think of me exactly?”
You only respond to the last comment: a terse, “I’m not sure.” You know this is a lie. You’re wild about every inch of him.
He walks you home in a rainstorm, leaving you both soaked and panting on the crooked front porch of the yellow plantation house you rent on Vanderhorst Street. He presses you against the exterior wall and kisses you with his hands in your hair. He smells like rain and marinara sauce with the lingering touch of pine. He tastes like tiramisu.
You invite him to fuck you on the front porch. At this, he falters. Perhaps not the thorn on the rose after all. But he falters only a moment before lifting your skirt, lifting you.
But Graydon Kelly does not fuck. He is an artist. His hips move the way he moves his bow across violin strings. When he comes with his forehead pressed against yours, you’re horrified to realize you could easily love this man.
Later, in your bed, you find him conversational. He makes himself at home. He is comfortable with pillow talk, even with an almost stranger. Again, you doubt your assessments.
He seemed so dangerous in his dark suit at Charleston Grill but so playful in his boat shoes with his messy hair: almost innocent—the kind of man you would take home to meet Mom. His comfort in your bed, though, is his tell, his admission. He does this all the time. He makes love to women he doesn’t know because they ask him to, because of his violin and his face and the strange questions he spouts over champagne.
When you ask about a white scar on his rib cage, he tells you his father used to beat him. One day, his father broke his ribs. One poked through the skin. In Graydon’s words, the bone looked like “a stick dipped in marmalade.” He was sixteen.
His honesty makes you awkward. You feel a need to share something, too, so you tell him you’ve been diagnosed schizophrenic. He doesn’t know what this means, not really, so you explain to him that you see things sometimes—children in white light on sidewalks; grown men covered in red scales. You tell him things have been better since the medication.
You expect him to leave, but he doesn’t. He stays until morning. You wake with his long appendages wrapped around you, his nose in your hair.
Then, he disappears. He’s gone for days before you hear from him again. By then, you’ve run the race of emotions and lost. You were cool at first, calm. Then, you missed him and hated yourself for missing him. Then, you were angry, which was when he returned—at the height of your anger.
He tells you he was gone to Nashville for a show. He tells you he travels a lot. You let him kiss you at Charleston Grill, and that night, he takes you back to his apartment: the second floor of a Battery mansion in the French Quarter. The floors are crooked, and his house smells like the sea.
He calls it “The Ballroom.”
It’s just one huge room with a bed in the corner, spotless kitchen, a rack of what appear to be expensive clothes, and finally, behind the only door, a bathroom.
He makes love to you in a grand, encompassing way, with his gaze on your face. You want to shield yourself. You feel like Lot’s wife, turned to salt.
There is no discussion of titles. You are not his girlfriend. When another woman kisses him in front of you, you say not a word.
After that, you allow yourself occasional visits to the Grill to watch him play. Graydon has played since he was eight, taught in Ireland, where he spent his childhood, which explained the accent that circled his vowels when he drank too much scotch. You watch his callused fingers. Your eyes wander down every crease and crevice of his black suit. You picture the way he looks underneath: a sinewy stretch of muscle and pale flesh and wonder how many other women in the room picture the same. You run your fingers down the side of your glass, slick with condensation.
He spends more time at your house. He brings sheet music, composes. One day, as you bring him a cup of coffee, you see your name written in pencil at the top of a page. The sound of musical scales is omnipresent.
You tell him you love him months later, and he frowns. He says, “I told you not to fall in love with me.”
And he did, too, the night you met his rich, Irish mother. In fact, he begged you. He begged you again and again, “Don’t fall in love with me. Don’t fall in love with me.” You were afraid to ask why.
With your newly recognized emotions, you think Graydon Kelly will stop seeing you. Instead, the sex gets even better, almost as if he seeks to fulfill your emotional needs by giving you the gift of his skin. And it is a gift. You suspect he knows it.
You stop taking your meds and end up in a hospital. You don’t remember much. You remember the Grill and violin music. You had one of your hallucinations—a child surrounded by light, then nothing. When you open your eyes, you’re in an uncomfortable bed. Machines beep around you. Your head aches, and the violin player sleeps, slumped in a chair with his hand over yours.
You wake him with your voice, and he seems panicked. His light blue eyes dart around the room. He paces. He wants to know when you ate last. He demands, “When was the last time you ate?”
There is blood on his white shirt. It’s from a wound on your head. Apparently, you passed out and knocked yourself against a barstool. Graydon curls up in the little hospital bed with you, and you run your fingers through his hair.
He tells you he loves you, and now, you understand his earlier request: Don’t fall in love with me. You are panicked to understand you’ve been waiting your whole life for a man to love you. Now one does, and the pressure in your heart equals only the pressure in your bandage-bound head.
His composition is finished by Christmas. It is, in fact, your Christmas gift. He named it for you, and he plays it with his eyes closed. He plays most music with his eyes closed. He says he likes to feel the notes. He says playing music is like drowning, like when you stay underwater too long and feel light-headed, high. He says it feels like that.
You begin to wonder how much he hides from you. You know about his father, dead now ten years. You’ve met his mother, who worships him like the Christ child. He has only one friend: a dreadlocked drummer named Quent with flawless skin and beautiful teeth. Women circle Graydon, always.
Some nights, you stare at yourself in the mirror. You know you are lovely. You have long, chestnut hair. You have multi-colored eyes that resemble flower petals up close. Your cheekbones are high—but not as high as his. As he said, you have a very nice mouth. Despite all this, you sometimes wonder why he chose you. Of all the women in Charleston, he chose to love you.
When you end up in the hospital again, you fight. You had one of your visions. You saw a man with red scales, and you passed out. Graydon does not call you crazy, but he looks strangled. You decide your love is his noose, so you send him away, screaming.
He tells you days later that he slept with one of the nurses. After you kicked him out, he asked her out for coffee and instead fucked her in the hospital parking garage.
You take him back, because he’s not the man in the suit when he admits all this. He’s the man from your first date in the torn jeans and boat shoes. He’s the man with the unkempt black hair and the cloud of pine. He reminds you of home when you hug him and hold him until he stops shaking. He moves into your yellow house permanently.
At your wedding, he plays the song he wrote for you. He pays the big bucks to get you a suite at Charleston Place. In your fervor to remove his suit and find him, just him, underneath, you forget the condom.
When you tell him you’re pregnant, he worries his bottom lip. You think he’s going to tell you to get rid of the child. He can’t be a father. Of course he can’t. He travels and plays late nights and drinks too much. As you prepare yourself, though, he leans over in bed and rests his head on your stomach.
He says, “I think I hear Bach.”
Graydon Kelly is a wonderful father, despite everyone’s expectations. He was playing a show in Columbia when you went into labor. He missed Angela’s birth by five minutes but rushed in, hair askew, sweat on his brow, and took your newborn daughter in his hands like a Stradivarius.
He played a new song—a secret song—that he’d written for his little girl to the delight and amusement of the entire obstetrics floor.
He devotes all his emotion to Angela and to you. There are still those nights when you look in the mirror and wonder how you ended up with the talk of Charleston as your husband.
He gets more handsome with age, and you didn’t think that possible. He fills out a little. You enjoy the way his chest expands, the way he makes you feel smaller, smaller. There is less of you now, more of him. His black hair mimics the slick iridescence of a duck’s wing. His eyes darken. His left hand, as always, is callused.
You love how in bed you know which of his hands touches you, right or left.
You love him more than you love your daughter. You would die for him, kill for him. Sometimes you think you never should have agreed to that first date.
But then, he starts composing again, and when composing, he looks like a scungy frat boy. He goes from thirty-eight-year-old celebrity violinist to backwards cap-wearing, finger-chewing, forgets-to-shower little boy. You love him the most when he’s like this. Then comes a new song, and you love him more, more.
Angela grows. Graydon decides she will learn piano. She looks just like her father. You feel as though there is none of you in her, as though his dominant features suppressed your own. Your features linger in your empty uterus.
One night, you ask him to fuck you. You don’t want to make love, and he obliges. By the end, you slide over each other, covered in sweat. You pass names back and forth, pants of heated breath. His orgasm is so jarring he leaves fingerprint bruises on the outsides of your thighs.
Since they adjusted your medication, you don’t see the demons or angels anymore. There are no children in white light waiting on the corners of Vanderhorst and King. There are no slinking men with red scales and yellow eyes. No more hospital visits.
You think you are happy. You watch Graydon play with Angela in your backyard. She already far surpasses her piano teacher’s expectations and her father’s. The little girl has long, black hair that curls around her pale neck. She has her father’s fleeting smile, his long fingers. She has his glowing blue eyes.
When he’s on stage at the Charleston Grill, he doesn’t look at you because he enjoys the slow asphyxiation his violin allows. When he is at home, he stares at you, adores you. Then, he looks away. You often wonder if you’ve stopped seeing things at all. Don’t you?